Casual Nintendo: the Blue Ocean Strategy

What are casual games? They could be described as quick and fun mobile, browser, or console games, easily played and understood. Because of their accessibility, these games are usually marketed at “non-gamers”, in other words people who are not traditional gamers and who don’t sink hours or days into games, but who could still enjoy gaming now and again. This genre is usually associated with small publishers or mobile developers, but one video game giant has famously dipped its toes in the casual market: Nintendo and their Blue Ocean strategy.

In the early 2000s, hardware competition in the gaming industry was rife. Sony was riding on the success of its acclaimed PlayStation consoles, followed with the PlayStation 3 in 2006. Microsoft, the computing giant, had entered the market with the Xbox and, in 2005, indicated it was here to stay by releasing its follow-up, the Xbox 360. Nintendo found themselves and in a bind: how could they retain (or regain) their market-share with their new 2006 console while competing with this increasingly sophisticated competition?

Nintendo turned away from technical escalation and chose instead to apply a strategy known as “Blue Ocean”. Perrin Kaplan, VP of Nintendo of America in 2006, explains this model in an interview: “Seeing a Blue Ocean is the notion of creating a market where there initially was none–going out where nobody has yet gone. Red Ocean is what our competitors do–heated competition where sales are finite and the product is fairly predictable.” (Kaplan, 2006) He then explains how Nintendo will now strive to make games for people who have never played games, or who may not like core gaming genres such as first-person shooters or role-playing games, adding on this subject that these games were “not the core of what we want to develop, but we do offer them” (Kaplan, 2006).

The result? A resounding success. This new Blue Ocean console, the Wii, sold over 100 million units (Nintendo, no date). Despite its technical inferiority, the Wii allowed for sensing devices, allowing the platform to release game genres never seen before. One of the Wii’s flagship titles, Wii Fit, came with sensing platform and prompted the user to do physical exercise, monitored and explained on-screen; the game sold 42 million copies worldwide (Hollensen, 2013). Nintendo released numerous titles based on family mini-games (Wii Sports) or petting animals (Nintendogs), all with great results.

However, this success was not to last eternally. By 2011, Sony and Microsoft had their own version of the Wii’s sensing device, and had regained their market share superiority over Nintendo (Hollensen, 2013). This shows that appealing to the Blue Ocean “new gamers” proved to be insufficient as the only growth incentive, unfortunately for Nintendo. With their following console, the Wii U, Nintendo moved back towards a hardcore gaming market, a strategy which resulted in the console selling a disappointing 2 million less units than expected in its first year (Hollensen 2013).

Has the Blue Ocean strategy damaged Nintendo for good by focusing on a casual market that proved to be lacking? Will their next console attempt a full swing back to its principles and attempt to attract yet more new gamers, or will it succeed in convincing hardcore gamers to pay attention? We should have the answer soon!


References

Hollensen, S (2013) ‘The Blue Ocean that disappeared – The case of Nintendo Wii’, Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 34: 5, pp. 25-35. Available at: http://www.academia.edu/3254871/Hollensen_S._2013_The_Blue_Ocean_that_disappeared_-_The_case_of_Nintendo_Wii_Journal_of_Business_Strategy_Vol._34_5_pp._25-35 (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Kaplan, P (2006) ‘Nintendo’s New Look’. Interviewed by Rachel Rosmarin for Forbes, 7 February. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/2006/02/07/xbox-ps3-revolution-cx_rr_0207nintendo.html (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Nintendo (no date) ‘Hardware and Software Sales Units’ [online]. Available at: https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/sales/hard_soft/ (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Images

Wind Waker Ocean (2014) [image]. Available at: http://www.howtobeabettergamer.com/2014/07/11-years-later-i-finally-beat-wind-waker.html (Accessed 22 February 2017)

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Rewind: Putting the 1983 Video Game Crash in Perspective

The 1983 video game crash. A sinister sentence for gamers who lived the event or those who recently saw tons of Atari 2600 E.T. cartridges being dug-up from decades in landfill. What was this crash, and did it really almost destroy gaming?

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Figure 1: A fictionalised 1980s Atari game designer

In 1982, the home console market looked pretty solid in the US: sales totalled $3.2 billion, and 25% of US households owned a console. Atari (figure 1) and its 10,000-strong workforce represented 70% of this market share (The Dot Eaters, 2017). However, things were perhaps a little *too* good, leading to an overall saturation of the market. In 1982 alone five different consoles were released (Video Game Console Library, 2016), adding to the growing list of hardware released by various manufacturers, all eager to carve their share of this profitable market. Wider acceptance of third party game development and fast turnarounds on game production lowered overall production quality (Oxford, 2011), allowing the market to become saturated both with consoles… and with poor quality games. This is famously illustrated by the game “E.T.” for the Atari 2600, of which 4 million produced only 1 million was sold; the game cartridges ended up in landfill, and the gaming industry was forced to its knees, with revenues dropping 97% (World Public Library, no date).

Was gaming almost eradicated as a hobby and industry, however? Hardly.

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Figure 2: The NES arrives in the US

Firstly, it is worth noting that this event is also sometimes called “the American video game crash”. Indeed, this crash, while having an impact on the industry worldwide, did not have the same disastrous consequences in every country. Japan, for example referred to this event as the “Atari Crash” (World Public Library, no date), not as a global disaster. Nintendo, equally undeterred by this so-called American crash, continued production on their first home console during this period and released the Famicom in Japan on July 15th 1983; it would later be released in the US and prove to be an enduring success in both countries (figure 2).

There is an even bigger trend to consider when discussing the 1983 video game crash: home computers. Technology was advancing at a fast pace in the early 1980s, making computing increasingly cheap, small, and powerful, and this improvement created the perfect environment for the rise of home computers. Not only could these machines be used for work or programming, but they could also be used for gaming. Testament to their versatility, their success endured throughout, and long after, the video game crash.

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Figure 3: A fictionalised 1980s programmer at work on the Commodore 64

The UK had its own gaming sensation with the ZX Spectrum, an inexpensive home computer with gaming capability and developed by Sinclair Research Ltd. How would this 1982 console fare in the doom and gloom of 1983? Very well: in the run-up to Christmas 1983, over 50k machines were sold every month in the UK (Retroinspection: Sinclair ZX Spectrum, 2015, p11). On the other side of the pond, and in the very land for the video game crash, the Commodore 64 was released in August 1982. The Commodore 64’s success was such that it eventually became the largest-selling console in history, with an estimated 20 to 30 million sales (Commodore Computers, 2016).

Was the 1983 video game crash as disastrous as it sounds? The answer is yes, but only for part of the industry. Did the industry truly learn the lesson? This is a question for another day…


References

Commodore Computers (2016) Commodore 64 – The Best Selling Computer In History [online]. Available at: http://www.commodore.ca/commodore-products/commodore-64-the-best-selling- computer-in-history/ (Accessed 29 November 2016)

Oxford, N. (2011) Ten Facts about the Great Video Game Crash of ’83 [online]. Available at: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2011/09/21/ten-facts-about-the-great-video-game-crash-of-83 (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Retroinspection: Sinclair ZX Spectrum. (2015). Retro Gamer, (The ZX Spectrum Book).

The Dot Eaters (2017) The Great Video Game Crash – End Game [online]. Available at: http://thedoteaters.com/?bitstory=the-great-video-game-crash (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Video Game Console Library (2016) History of the Video Game Console : 1980s [online]. Available at: http://www.videogameconsolelibrary.com/pg80-over.htm. (Accessed 22 February 2017)

World Public Library (no date) North American video game crash of 1983 [online]. Available at: http://www.worldlibrary.org/articles/north_american_video_game_crash_of_1983 (Accessed 29 November 2016)

Images

Halt and Catch Fire – Computers (2014) [image]. Available at: http://mashable.com/2014/05/29/halt-and-catch-fire-amc-compaq/#LbfUQu.qYsq2 (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Halt and Catch Fire – Atari (2016) [image]. Available at: https://onpiratesatellite.com/home/halt-and-catch-fire-season-finale-s3-e9-nim-and-s3-e10-next (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Halt and Catch Fire – NES (2016) [image]. Available at: http://www.polygon.com/tv/2016/9/19/12971136/halt-and-catch-fire-super-mario-bros-clip (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Halt and Catch Fire – Cameron (2016) [image]. Available at: http://observer.com/2016/09/halt-and-catch-fire-3×04-recap-firing-lines/ (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Review: Prune (iOS)

Review Information
Game: Prune
Developer: Joel McDonald
Platform Tested: iOS (available here)
Price: £3.99 (as of 10 February 2017)
Hours played: ~4hrs
My Verdict: Awful / Average / Ok / Good / Great!

Prune is a 2015 game developed by Joel McDonald, around the ethos “Cultivate what matters. Cut away the rest.” (McDonald, 2015). It is centred around one single mechanic: pruning a growing tree’s branches by swiping the mobile device’s screen. The trees grow automatically within the game space and it is up to the player to cut branches in order to direct the tree’s growth into a lit area where it can flower, with additional challenges and stage objects added as the levels progress; to help chart their course, the player may pinch the screen to zoom in and out. The level is won when the tree bears the right amount of flowers, and is lost when the tree’s growth is stopped or destroyed by an adverse object.

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Figure 1: Prune’s beautifully empty levels

Prune could be classified as a meditative game: there is one single mechanic, the minimalistic sounds and visuals take centre stage and, interestingly, there are no written instructions at all. The gameplay is taught through a mix of visual cues (swiping motion symbol on the screen, highlight of the branches) and sounds (cutting sound, breaking sound when hitting an obstacle, chiming sound when flowering). In both areas, the game is rather striking, with an almost monochrome palette brightened by the occasional blue and red, and single-note sounds that seem to echo through the game’s world. Each game screen is also very empty at the level start, almost encouraging the player to fill this void by playing (figure 1). Indeed, aesthetically, Prune is a very sensory game, allowing the player to lose themselves in what they see and hear without the burden of text, pop-ups, or or complex mechanics.

 

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Figure 2: Challenges

There is also an element of challenge and strategy, as the tree grows in real time and requires quick thinking by the player so it can be stirred towards the correct direction(s) and avoid obstacles. Should the player not react quick enough, the tree may wither or hit an obstacle, meaning the level needs to be replayed. Later game stages include more complex mechanics, such as wind, objects gradually burning the tree (figure 2), or elements that can be opened when touching the tree, requiring new strategies as the game gets more complex. While the levels grow in complexity, resulting in more and more failure as the player learns to navigate new obstacles, Prune is a forgiving game; any level can be replayed without penalty, and it even allows the player to skip a level after several failed attempts. This player-centric approach emphasises the experience over potential frustration, and further enhances the meditative feel of the game.

 

Prune is a very consistent game, wherein all the artistic and gameplay elements complement each other while fitting with a strong overall vision. However, because the game hinges on one single mechanic and one artistic vision, the game can become repetitive after a few hours of play. The pruning gameplay can also become troublesome on small screens, where the user may not have enough time to zoom in and prune the correct branch, resulting in occasional frustration. Maybe it’s not a game that can be played for days, but it is worth losing yourself in its beauty for a little while.


References

McDonald, J. (2015) Prune. Available at: http://www.prunegame.com/ (Accessed 10 February 2017)

Prune (2015) Joel McDonald. Images my own.

Immediacy & User Interface

Video games typically have a lot of information to convey to the player: stats, health, ammunition, maps, inventory, or even tutorials and actions needed to progress forward. This is done through a user interface (UI), which can take many forms and be of varying complexity.

Having an on-screen UI can however be perceived to detract from the game action, particularly for fast-paced and adrenaline-driven genres such as horror games or first person shooters. These games could indeed benefit from what Bolter and Grusin call transparent immediacy, a state wherein “the user is no longer aware of confronting a medium, but instead stands in an immediate relationship to the contents of that medium” (2000, p24). How can this be achieved?

An initial option is forced omission: some games allow the player to remove some on-screen UI, such as health, map, or quest markers. This can be a solution for the player to chose their level of immersion by minimising UI, but remains a black and white choice. Other games however take this principle further.

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Figure 1: Resident Evil 7

Instead of an abstract health bar, Resident Evil 7 uses a much more visceral effect: blood stains on the edges of the screen (figure 1). This allows the game to bypass a traditional UI and the player to get an almost realistic feel of how critical their wounds are – the bloodier the screen, the closer to death they are and the more healing becomes an emergency. This effect has also been used in several her first person shooter games over time, and shows an interesting way to present the player’s vital statistics without using traditional UI. It is worth noting, however, that this type of immersive UI has limitations, an in this game is not used to present other data such as ammunition or inventory, for which a more classic UI menu is used.

 

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Figure 2: Pip Boy

One franchise, however, decided to take this immersive UI even further. How can a game feed the player numerous statistics and textual information in line with immediacy? For the Fallout franchise, “Pip Boy” was the answer (figure 2). Pip Boy is a computing device found in game that sits around the in-game character’s wrist, and can be accessed by the player at the touch of a button. The player can then flick through this small computer to see the inventory, the map, and quests information. While vitals such as health and experience points still appear on-screen outside of the Pip-Boy menu, this devices enhances the feeling of immediacy with this immersion-friendly device.

While these creative solutions work well for the aforementioned games, Salen and Zimmerman observe that this focus on immediacy may not be the right discussion for all game genres and experiences, citing character-driven games where a more present UI can actually be important for immersion (2004, p453).

Food for thought for game designers and UI designers alike!


References

Bolter, J.D., Grusin, R (2000). Remediation: Understanding New Media. 1st ed. MIT Press.

‘Pip Boy’ (no date) [image]. Available at: http://fallout.wikia.com/wiki/Pip-Boy (Accessed: 10 February 2017)

‘Resident Evil 7’ (2017) [image]. Available at: http://www.gamespot.com/gallery/resident-evil-7-boss-guide/2900-1084/ (Accessed: 10 February 2017)

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press.